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[ illustration ]
Hernando de Soto. Engraving from Herrera's Historia General, 1615.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ6-674).
de Soto, Hernando (1500?-21 May 1542), Spanish conquistador and
explorer, was the son of Francisco Mendez de Soto, an important
landowner in Jerez de los Caballeros, Badajoz Province, Spain,
and Dona Leonor Arias Tinoco, a noblewoman from a family prominent
in the city of Badajoz. De Soto usually gave his birthplace as
Jerez de los Caballeros and considered it the seat of his family line.
At the age of fourteen, with at most a basic education, Hernando
joined the 1514 expedition of Pedro Arias de Avila (Pedrarias)
to Castilla del Oro, modern Panama. During the next nine years
(1514-1523), de Soto rose to prominence and wealth by participating
in raids on Indian villages thought to have food and gold. By
1517, he, Juan Ponce de Leon, and Francisco Campanon had formed
a company. Two years later, de Soto received land in the new
town of Nata, Panama, governed by Campanon.
In 1523 de Soto served as a captain in Francisco Hernandez de
Cordoba's conquest of Nicaragua. His rewards, shared with Ponce,
were real estate in Leon, Nicaragua, encomiendas (gangs of Indian
laborers), Indian slaves, and interests in mines. By the late
1520s the partners (Campanon was dead) had diversified into the
trade in Indian slaves and shipping and were two of the wealthier men in
De Soto, once a subordinate of Francisco Pizarro in Panama,
became Pizarro's associate in the conquest of Peru in 1530 when
Ponce and de Soto agreed to provide two ships, horsemen, and
supplies for the venture in exchange for de Soto's appointment
as the lieutenant governor of the principal town the Spaniards
would found in Peru and a choice encomienda for Ponce.
De Soto and his party of 100 men and twenty-five horses joined
the Pizarro expedition on Puna Island, Ecuador, on 1 December
1531. De Soto led the scouting parties as the army moved toward
Cajamarca, where the Inca "emperor," Atahualpa, was camped. Sent
to invite Atahualpa to the Spanish camp, de Soto put on a display
of horsemanship that included charging his steed toward, and
reining it in just short of, the seated Inca. This spontaneous
act of intimidation, bravado, and infantile showmanship seems
to have been very much in character. Although authors of romantic
histories credit de Soto with objecting to the later execution
of Atahualpa, the evidence suggests that he agreed with and participated
in the decision. From Cajamarca, de Soto led the Spanish vanguard
toward Cuzco during the last third of 1533.
Although his modest portion of Atahualpa's ransom (four of 217
shares) presaged a limited future in Pizarro's Peru, de Soto
stayed for two more years, intent on gaining wealth and status
equal to his ambitions. As agreed in 1530, on 27 July 1534 de
Soto became lieutenant governor of Cuzco, a position he enjoyed
until March 1535 when Diego de Almagro took control of the city
during the first stage of his power struggle with Pizarro. Almagro
rejected de Soto's subsequent bid to be his agent for the conquest
of southern Chile. De Soto left Peru for Spain late in 1535.
De Soto reached Spain in the spring of 1536 with a fortune said
to have been as much as 180,000 pesos de oro (several million
dollars). Outfitting himself and his followers with stylish clothing
and servants, de Soto became the darling of the queen and her
ladies at court but failed to gain the government of any of the
territories he requested, whether in South America or Guatemala.
Eventually he was offered a contract to explore southeastern
North America. Spanish expeditions there during the 1520s had
reported the possibility of gems in unexplored inland mountains.
During this period of waiting, de Soto married Isabel de Bobadilla,
the daughter of his late commander, Pedrarias. Their marriage
in late 1536 or early 1537 was not the culmination of a lifelong
romance as some writers have imagined but rather an alliance
of families with properties in Central America entered into at
a time when de Soto hoped to become governor of Guatemala. They
never had any children.
De Soto's contract with the king was signed on 20 April 1537.
He had five years to explore the territory from the Rio de las
Palmas (the modern Soto la Marina River) in Mexico to the cod
fishery in Newfoundland before selecting 200 leagues (about 650
miles) of coast that would define the territory he could conquer.
He was allowed to grant encomiendas of Indians and was given
numerous economic benefits, including the governorship of Cuba,
which he intended to make his supply base.
The de Soto expedition sailed from San Lucar on 6/7 April 1538
in ten ships. Recruitment of the 700 persons on board had been
helped by the arrival of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who, having
just returned from his famous walk across northern Mexico, hinted
that great wealth might be found in the interior of North America,
although he declined to join the expedition.
The fleet arrived at Santiago de Cuba on 9 June 1538. De Soto
spent the time through the following spring accumulating supplies
and sending Juan de Anasco to scout the west coast of Florida
for a port to be used as a landing and supply point. (A west
coast port avoided the lengthy and often difficult return voyage
that a landing on the east coast of North America would have involved.)
De Soto sailed for Florida on 18 May 1539. After some difficulties
due to weather and shallow waters in the bay that the expedition
entered, approximately 600 men and 240 horses landed on 30 May.
Most scholars place the landing on the south shore of Tampa Bay,
perhaps at Rustin, but the documentary evidence is not so exact.
The de Soto expedition's precise route during the next four
years is disputed, but its general track is not. From the landing,
the army moved up the western side of the hilly core of peninsular
Florida to make a winter camp at Anhica Apalachee, in or near
modern Tallahassee. This route took de Soto through a part of
Florida where Indians and their maize were abundant. To obtain
bearers for his supplies, he routinely kidnapped chiefs and enslaved
their subjects, fastening them together with neck chains to prevent escape.
During the course of 1540, the army moved north and then west.
The first leg of the route was through modern Georgia to Cofitachequi,
probably in the Camden-Columbia area of South Carolina. The second
leg was up the drainage of the Wateree River into the mountains
of North Carolina. Evidence collected by another Spanish explorer,
Captain Juan Pardo, in 1566-1568 shows that de Soto probably
passed through Swannanoa Gap and down the French Broad River
into northwestern Georgia, to an Indian polity called Coosa.
The survivors of the de Soto expedition later remembered Coosa
as a populous garden of Eden, an image that helped to inspire
the Tristan de Luna expedition (1559-1561). Freshwater pearls
were found at Cofitachequi, but precious metals and gems were
not found in the mountains.
From Coosa, de Soto pushed south and southwest to Mabilia, where
a confederation of Indians laid a trap for him. In hard fighting,
the Spaniards won the battle, although they lost some of their
equipment when the town burned. From there de Soto marched to
the northwest, up the Tombigbee River drainage, to a winter camp
in northern Mississippi at Chicaza. The Indians attacked on 4
March 1541, burning what was left of the army's equipment.
From this winter camp, de Soto led his army to the northwest.
On 8 May 1541 his scouts came to the Mississippi River. After
building barges, the army crossed into Arkansas, where it spent
the rest of the year. Exploration northward along the western
bank of the Mississippi failed to reveal mineral resources, so
the army went west into the Ozarks. Again disappointed in his
search for gold, de Soto marched southeast, back to the Mississippi
and a winter camp.
In the spring of 1542, de Soto explored more of southern Arkansas
before dying from a fever at the Indian town of Guachoya. His
body was sunk in the Mississippi, supposedly to keep the Indians
from realizing he was a mortal human being rather than a demigod.
The rest of the expedition spent another year trying to reach
Mexico by an overland route, giving that up, returning to the
Mississippi, and building boats in which it descended the Mississippi
River and returned to Mexico.
De Soto is portrayed by many writers as more noble, gentle,
and loving toward the Indians than other Spanish conquistadors.
This portrayal is not borne out by his known actions in Central
America, Peru, and the American Southeast. He was just as violent
toward the Indians as were most of the leaders of the Spanish
conquest of the Americas.
De Soto's expedition completed Spain's initial exploration of
the American Southeast. It showed that the Appalachian mountains
apparently did not contain precious metals and that the principal
resources of the region were its peoples, soils, and forests.
Hernando de Soto has no modern, book-length biography that is
free from the romantic idealization of the man begun by Garcilaso
de la Vega, El Inca, in his La Florida del Inca (1601). Typical
of the genre is Miguel Albornoz, Hernando de Soto: Knight of
the Americas, trans. Bruce Boeglin (1986). Short, critical biographies
are James Lockhart, The Men of Cajamarca (1972), pp. 190-201,
and Paul E. Hoffman, "Hernando de Soto, A Short Biography," in
The de Soto Chronicles, ed. Lawrence A. Clayton, vol. 1 (1993),
pp. 421-59. The de Soto Chronicles contains modern translations
of all four accounts of de Soto's Florida expedition as well
as some additional documents concerning it. The four accounts
can also be found in Edward Gaylord Bourne, ed., Narratives of
the Career of Hernando de Soto (1905). Other important sources
are Antonio de Solar y Taboada and Jose de Rujula y de Ochotorena,
El adelantado Hernando de Soto (1929), and Jose Hernandez Diaz,
Expedicion del adelantado Hernando de Soto a la Florida (1938).
The expedition's history and route have been the objects of
intensive study, notably John R. Swanton, Final Report of the
United States de Soto Expedition Commission, repr. ed. (1985);
Jerald T. Milanich and Charles Hudson, Hernando de Soto and the
Indians of Florida (1993); and Charles Hudson et al., "Hernando
de Soto's Expedition through the Southern United States," in
First Encounters: Spanish Explorations in the Caribbean and the
United States, 1492-1570, ed. Jerald T. Milanich (1989).
Paul E. Hoffman
Back to the top
Paul E. Hoffman. "de Soto, Hernando";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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